Tag Archives: Latin Literature

La Jeune Parque by Paul Valéry

In Roman myth the three Fates— Parcae in Latin Moirai in Ancient Greek are referred to as sisters: Clotho, the youngest, is the spinner of a person’s life thread, Lachesis measures the final thread of life, and the dreaded Atropos cuts the thread of life.  Because of their absolute and unpredictable authority over all life—even Jupiter is subjected to their decisions—they are feared and rarely spoken about except in passing references.

In Petronius Satyricon, the three anti-heroes of this Ancient Roman novel visit a freedman named Trimalchio who has become filthy rich through his investments in shipping.  Trimalchio himself, as well as his sprawling house, is opulent and tacky.  His villa would be the perfect feature for the Roman version of MTV Cribs. The visitors to his home view a large mosaic installed in his dining room that features  the three fates spinning and measuring out the thread of Trimalchio’s life: praesto erat Fortuna cum cornu abundanti copiosa et tres Parcae aurea pensa torquentes.  “And right there in front of us Fortune was depicted with her horn of plenty and the three Fates spinning their golden threads.”  This is by no means a usual piece of artwork that would appear in any Roman’s home, but Trimalchio is a man obsessed with death and his own mortality.

And Vergil, when describing the hardships that his epic hero Aeneas will suffer, concludes (with the cleverly syncopated verb volverunt) : Sic Parcae volvere  (And that’s how the Fates roll.)

So why does the Paul Valéry write an entire poem about Clotho, the youngest of these fates? After a successful career as a poet he suddenly takes a break from publishing his works for more than 20 years.   La Jeune Parque, a poem as perplexing and enigmatic as the Fates themselves,  is the first piece of writing that he publishes after this extended period of silence.  The 512 line poem, written in Alexandrine rhyming couplets,  is dedicated to his friend Andre Gide, who comes up several times in Valéry”s first part of his first Cahiers/Notebooks.   He oftentimes remarks about his fondness for Gide, but he also likes to complain that in his own Diaries Gide writes incorrect things about him and misunderstands him.  Valéry also doesn’t like the sentimental and moral nature of Gide’s Diaries which are very different from Valery’s own Notebooks.  In Cahiers 1 “Ego,” p. 236 he writes: “Gide is an old tart. His Diary seeks to give value to his slightest moment. What an Anti for me!  Just as I’ve got an obsession for exhausting, for not-repeating, for having done with what seems to cost nothing—as with what is purely and simply exceptional—so he does the opposite—and so on.”

The best way, I think, and really the only way, to make any sense of La Jeune Parque is to read it alongside the poet’s Notebooks.  Valéry, who woke up at 5 a.m. every day for most of his adult life to think and write in his Notebooks,  is very much obsessed in the first part of them with intellect and what he can contribute to society with his thoughts and his intellect.  His writings and his observations were, he felt, his real life’s work and his job as a civil servant, which he needed to support himself and his family, was just a way of making money.  A lot of his time is spent in solitude contemplating his intellectual pursuits and figuring out who he is: “In a positive manner, intelligence is something like hunger, thirst, need—something seeking, demanding to work—to function , and it ruptures my sleep, worries my being and wakes me up too early every morning, whether or not I’m tired (Cahiers 1, p. 187).

When La Jeune Parque begins, the youngest Fate (her never names her directly)  is depicted as a beautiful, and lonely, young woman waking up in the dark after a dream on a shoreline and torn by between passion and duty.  Her silence is punctuated by the fact that she not only addresses but personifies the stars:

Almighty aliens, unavoidable stars!—
Who willingly across the miles of time
Make something pure, higher than nature, shine;
Who into mortals plunge to the source of tears
These lofty glimmerings, these invincible weapons
And shooting pains from your eternal life,
I am alone with you, here on the point
Gnawed by the marvellous ocean, shivering, fresh
From bed; asking my heart what pain has woken it,
What crime committed by me or upon me?

The last line calls to mind Ovid’s Daphne who is trying to fend off Apollo’s unwanted love and who considers any form of romantic love or marriage a “crimen” (crime). An image of a snake is used to signify desire and passion that has bitten her and whose poison now torments her:

Coils of desires, towed by this snake! What a jumble
Of treasures that evade my greedy reach—
And what a dark thirst for limpidity!

So often in myth we encounter immortal forces like the Fates, the Hours, the Seasons, and women like Daphne, Semele and Dido and men like Aeneas who are given a job or a role they must fulfill.  They have duties and obligations assigned to them that they didn’t choose and things like desire, passion and love are inaccessible to them.  It’s a stroke of brilliance that Valery chooses a Fate, who didn’t choose her own Fate, to contemplate choices or lack of choices.  Valéry’s young woman herself cites as an example the oracle at Delphi who also had no choice but to carry out her assigned task:

I think, as he world’s rime turns gold, I weigh
The taste for death of the priestess at Delphi
Inside whom moaned a hope the world would end.

At the tender age of twenty-one Valéry has his own battle with the passions when he falls in love with an inaccessible woman.  He reminisces about it briefly in his Notebooks as a negative part of his life that he would rather forgot.  In Cahiers 1, p. 177 he writes, “The past as a chronological and narrative structure has less existence for me than for others. It seems that my being likes to forget what will only be a picture later on—and keep what can be assimilated into itself so completely that it’s no longer a past, but a functional element of virtual acts.” Memory in general is a concept that Valery despises and feels uncomfortable with. The young woman in his poem also expresses anguish over desire and the memories of desire:

The mind is so pure it never kneels
To idols: lonely ardour does flare up
And drive away the walls of its sad tomb.
Anything can appear with infinite waiting.

The Fate also begins to reminisce about a chance passionate encounter in the woods that leaves a deep impression on her. The young woman’s torment over passion, her early awakening, and her inner turmoil wax and wanes as she falls into a peaceful sleep and wakes up again. But like Valery’s experience earlier in his life, this passion is out of reach. And it’s not only desire and love that are out of reach, but, like other immortals, she can’t even choose death. Death, ironically for her, is something she controls and is all around her but it is out of the question as an option for herself:

But if my tender smell goes to your hollow head,
O Death, breathe in at last this regal slave:
Call me, undo these bonds!..And drive off hope
From me, so tired of self, in this doomed shape!

Finally, I have to say a word about the Bloodaxe Books dual language edition that is translated with an introduction and notes by Alistar Elliot. The text is notoriously difficult and Alistar’s notes are a necessity to understanding Valery’s poem and the etymological interpretations of his translation.

 

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How to Pick up Women: Advice from Ovid’s Ars Amatoria

Yesterday I shared on Twitter a pick up strategy from Ovid that Pound alludes to in the Cantos.  I’ve had a request to translate a few more.  Here are some of my favorites:

 

From I.139-142.   A great place to pick up a pretty girl is at the Circus:

Sit as close as possible to your lady, nothing is forbidden in the Circus.

Press your leg as close to her leg as possible at all times.

With those close seats there are no boundaries, even if it annoys you,

So you pretty much have to touch your lady when you’re in the Circus.

 

From I.153-156.  And if she has a wardrobe malfunction make sure you help her:

If the hems of her skirt are dragging on the ground,

then gather them up and lift them from the dirt, and immediately,

as a reward for your attentiveness—if she allows it, of course—

your eyes will get a good look at her bare legs.

 

From 1.455-458. A little love note is always a good thing:

Go ahead and send her a letter with flattering sentiments,

and use this to explore her feelings and to test the road first.

 

From 1.505-506 and 509-510. Look presentable but not too metro:

Don’t curl your hair with the curling iron,

and don’t pluck all the hair from your legs.

A man is more handsome when he is not so fussy

about his appearance; Theseus, for example,

carried off Ariadne without spending any time

on his looks.

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Body into Body: Lucretius De Rerum Natura 4.1096-1120

Just as when a thirsty man, in his sleep, attempts to take a drink but the moisture needed to extinguish the fire in his limbs is no where to be found; so instead he looks for images of liquids and struggles in vain and drinking in the middle of a roaring river he is still thirsty.   In the same way, Venus, in matters of the heart, teases lovers with images; and these lovers, even when face to face and looking at one another’s actual bodies, can’t satisfy themselves; and even when their hands are wandering  hesitantly over one another’s body they are not able to scrape off anything of  their lover’s tender limbs.  And when, at last, with limbs entwined, they enjoy the fruit of their age, and when their bodies are on the point of ecstasy, and Venus is on the edge of sowing the woman’s field,  they greedily join their bodies and mix together the saliva of their mouths, and breathing into each other they press teeth on mouths. But all this is in vain since they are still not able to scrape off anything from each other, or to penetrate one another or to enter completely into one another—body into body; they often seem to not only want this but they also struggle to do this. And so they longingly cling together in the bonds of Love and, shaken by the force of their pleasure, their limbs melt away.  Finally, when the desire, mounting from their pleasure, bursts forth, there is a brief pause in this violent passion at least for a little.  But once again, this same madness returns and that fury revisits them.  When they are desirous and look to hold onto something—but they aren’t sure what—they are unable to find  a way to conquer the ache.  And so,uncertain, they waste away from this mysterious wound.

 

My reading of Sade and a recent thread from @Noxrpm on Twitter inspired me to spend some time translating this section of De Rerum Natura.

 

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Lucretius on Dispelling Fear

De Rerum Natura 2.55-61 (translation is my own):

Just as small children tremble and fear everything in the blind darkness, so do we, as adults, fear in broad daylight things that are just as irrational as the fears of children in the dark when they imagine things before their eyes. Therefore, it is necessary for us to shake off this terror and gloom of the mind, not by the rays of the sun or the brightness of daylight, but by the appearance and reason of nature.

These lines from Book II of De Rerum Natura are quoted by the Marquis de Sade (although they are mistakenly said to be from Book III) in the introduction to his “philosophical novel” Aline & Valcour which will be published in a new English translation at the end of the year by Contra Mundum. The epistolary style novel, written while Sade was imprisoned in the Bastille, is described as owing “a special debt to the ancient Roman poet Lucretius, whose Epicurean and materialist philosophy lends it a contemporary feel wholly missing from many 18th century novels.”

Needless to say, I’m very intrigued. This will be my first Sade novel.

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Otium Divos Rogat: Horace Ode 2.16

For @Noxrpm whose Tweet yesterday inspired me to translate this Horace Ode.

2.16

While being caught on the rough Aegean, as a black cloud
hides the moon and the fixed stars are not shining for him,
the sailor begs the gods for peace;

The Thracians, frantic in war, beg for peace;
The Parthians, decorated archers, beg for peace,
dear Grosphus, a peace that cannot be bought with
gems or with purple or with gold.

Neither royal treasures nor political power can
erase the wretched anxieties of the mind or the
cares flying around the paneled walls of the home.

He who lives modestly lives well—the type of man
who is proud of an inherited antique salt dish that
shines on his modest table, the type of man who does
not let a little fear or sordid desire disturb his sleep.

Why, when we have such a short life, do we strive to
accumulate wealth? Why do we exchange our current
clime for a foreign one that is hotter? Can the man who is
an exile from his own homeland also flee from
himself?

Corrupted care climbs aboard bronze ships and
it keeps pace with a squadron of cavalry, and is
swifter than deer, and is swifter  than the East Wind
that drives along the clouds.

Let the soul, which loathes worrying about the
future, be happy in the moment and assuage any
bitterness with a calm smile. Nothing in this
life is completely perfect.

Swift Death snatched away that renowned Achilles
and Old Age greatly diminished Tithonus; perhaps
the hour will offer to me what it has denied to you.

One-hundred herds of Sicilian cattle bellow around you
and horses fit for the chariot raise up their neighing
to you, and you dress yourself in wool dyed twice with

African purple; The Fates, never false, have given me
a modest country estate, and the tender spirit of
Greek Song and the ability to reject the spiteful mob.

 

Horace’s Ode, written to Grosphus who was a wealthy Sicilian rancher, reflects his tendency towards Epicurean philosophy as he advocates for a simple life without cares or anxieties.  The sailor and sailing images, typical of Horace, also bring to mind Lucretius 2.1-19 where the stresses of a shipwreck are compared to the calm of the Epicurean spirit.  In addition, the anaphora with otium (peace) in this Ode must have been influenced by Catullus’s Carmen 51 which is also composed in Sapphic strophe meter.  Catullus, however (whom I’ve always thought of as a bad Epicurean), thinks otium is a negative thing—it is what keeps him from approaching the woman he loves (I translate the lines here and discuss them in relation to Flaubert).  I also bought a complete set of Montaigne’s essays so I can read “Of Solitude” which Nox quoted on Twitter in relation to this Horace Ode.

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